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Pierce County’s Halvorson brings ‘The Badlands,’ other gifts to ND music lovers

By Sue Sitter - | Jul 24, 2021

Rugby’s David Halvorson holds a copy of ‘The Badlands,’ a musical piece he wrote in 1988. The Minot City Band performed the piece July 18. Sue Sitter/PCT

Rugby musician and composer David Halvorson brought the wild and windy sounds of North Dakota’s Badlands to the Minot City Band July 17.

Written by Halvorson in 1988, “The Badlands” involves 29 musical parts. “It’s pretty challenging,” Halvorson said. “It has the flute, oboe, three clarinets, alto saxophone, bassoon, base clarinet, French horn, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, three trumpets, three trombones, baritone tuba and four percussion parts,” he added, listing the instruments used to capture the sounds of North Dakota’s southwestern edge.

“It took me almost a year to write it,” Halvorson said. “It was the third piece I ever wrote for band. It was something about the excitement about going to the Badlands and the adventure, and then the sheer beauty of it. I hoped to musically illustrate that.”

Halvorson said the piece is “very western. It’s very motific.” Halvorson explained the recurring musical themes or motifs used to bring the sounds of the Badlands to music. “You’ll hear the intervals, one, three, five, (C, E, G) then you’ll hear five, three, one (G, E, C),” he said of the notes.

A Rugby native, Halvorson lived in the Minneapolis area in the early 1990s, where he taught music at Edison High School. Halvorson had done his first teaching stint at Rugby High School in 1988, the year he wrote “The Badlands.”

“I got it performed in Minnesota first,” Halvorson noted. “It was performed by Macalester College at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. It was a place I would go when I lived there to hear band concerts and wow, to hear my own song was really special.”

He would bring the piece back to North Dakota decades later. The Minot City Band performance was “its North Dakota premiere,” he said.

Halvorson grew up in Rugby, where he and his siblings helped their father with his house painting business. Halvorson said his mother, a teacher at Ely Elementary School, made sure her children learned music. Halvorson practiced the piano for one year and then began playing brass instruments such as the tuba and the trumpet.

“In seventh grade, I really took off. Playing music was my entertainment back then. I didn’t really watch television much. When you’re playing, it almost takes you to another planet, it’s just so extremely cool,” Halvorson said.

Halvorson set his sights on a career in music.

“I remember I was out painting a house, helping my dad,” he said. “I was painting with my brother and I looked at him and said, ‘Jim, I’m going to be a composer someday.’ It took a long time and I put it on hold, but that was my passion. That was my genius.”

In high school, Halvorson took advantage of three study hall periods to get in more musical practice. He recalled spending as many as six hours practicing music on the weekends.

Halvorson learned other instruments and made his first attempts at musical composition in high school.

“I was fortunate to have Tim Fogderud, who taught choral music at Rugby High,” Halvorson said. “He also taught piano improvisation. That’s how I learned how to compose.” Halvorson said Fogderud “was also a published composer. He was published through Jensen. Jensen is a hard company to get in with.”

“Tillman Hovland was such a big influence on my life, too. He was an amazing teacher,” Halvorson added. “He worked so hard and gave so many solos to play. Somehow, he always motivated you to do your best.”

“That’s who I give my credit to. My musical life is those two teachers right there,” Halvorson said.

“Of course,” he added, “there were others along the way.”

During his college years, Halvorson studied piano improvisation with his cousin, Gordy Lindquist, at Dakota College at Bottineau. Lindquist, who has since retired, now uses the stage name “Crazy Fingers” to present comedic piano performances throughout the state.

After graduating college, Halvorson turned his musical focus to teaching, where he shared his creative gifts with students.

Halvorson began writing music for his students to perform as he moved to schools in Minnesota, Wolford in North Dakota, then Alaska, then back in North Dakota. He settled in Wolford and taught from 2006 until the school closed in 2019.

“Wolford was a magical time,” Halvorson said. “There were many compositions that came out of Wolford.”

“For every elementary student at Wolford, I wrote a solo,” Halvorson said. “I wrote a lot of band pieces. The first one I had published was ‘Tuba Time.’ That was a duet for two tuba players I had at high school level.”

Halvorson said the duo “actually received a star and went to state.”

“What a magical time,” Halvorson said. “The students were so amazing. The elementary band was playing stuff that high school bands couldn’t play. It was such an incredible time. I don’t know how many songs came out of Wolford, at least 50 or 60.”

Halvorson said at Wolford, “I was able to learn every instrument because I would teach the instruments in private lessons and play along with them. We had an audition for junior high all-state and I would learn the audition on every instrument, so I got to be pretty skilled on every instrument. I played right along with the kids.”

“Four of them made it to state,” Halvorson added. “One kid was first chair in the state, from tiny little Wolford.”

“He just graduated high school,” Halvorson said of the first chair student. “Ashton Wendland was his name. It was so cool. I was hoping and hoping he would make it and I got the results back: First chair, Ashton Wendland, from Wolford. It was five years ago when that happened.”

“It was such a wonderful musical time up there, but it had to come to an end,” Halvorson added.

Halvorson said he cherished his opportunities not only to teach, but also create for the school band. “I wasn’t married so school was my life,” Halvorson said, laughing.

“I got married two years ago, so things are different. I have a new love,” he added with a smile.”

Halvorson said no matter where he’s been, he’s still found time to write music. “In my life, I’ve written probably 400 songs,” he said. “After 400, I stopped counting.”

Halvorson added he’s tried for 30 years to get songs published.

He finally realized his goal in March of 2020. Halvorson said he sent two songs to Alfred Publishing. He had named one of his songs “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Halvorson explained he had written the song because band students at Dunseith High School needed another song for their Christmas performance.

“It was kind of scary,” he said of his song. “I hadn’t heard of or even seen the movie. But I was teaching at Dunseith at the time and I said, ‘We need one more song.’ (Student) Zoe Poitra said, ‘How about The Nightmare Before Christmas?’ And I said, ‘Hey, that’s a great title for a song.'”

“So, I wrote ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and it has nothing to do with the movie.”

“I used to hear back about three months later with a ‘Thank you for your interest in this company. We can’t use it at this time.’ This time, about a week later, I get an email from Alfred Music and they said, ‘Regarding your first song, we won’t be able to use that. Regarding ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ Robert Sheldon will be contacting you about that song.'”

“Woo! I thought, ‘This is the first time I had such a quick response and somebody is going to talk to me!’ And Robert Sheldon was one of my heroes growing up,” Halvorson said. “(Sheldon) was a great composer and he called me at home afterwards and we talked and I couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Yes, we can use this. There are four spots available and in 2022 we’ll publish it.’ He said Alfred gets 30,000 manuscripts every year that they look through. So they screen what they think will sell and they chose mine when they had four spots left.”

“They’re going to publish it as ‘Night Mare Before Christmas,’ because the drum beat sounds like a galloping horse. It’s for fall or Halloween,” Halvorson said. “It’s a really fun piece to play and I’ve handed it out to different groups and they just keep wanting to play that one.”

Halvorson has also written music for Rugby’s Village Arts, where he’s also become a familiar face as director of the string orchestra.

“I wrote some choir music and (former Director) Deb Jenkins said, ‘Yes, I think we can perform this. It would be great.’ The Village Arts is wonderful because anything you give the Village Arts Choir, they can perform. So, you write for them and you don’t have to worry whether they can do it,” Halvorson said. “It’s wonderful to write for them. Andee Mattson’s a superb choral director. She’s a technician. So, it’s fun to prepare things for that.”

“A lot of songs were borne of the Village Arts,” Halvorson said, estimating he’s written “about 12 pieces for them. It’s a great place for people to get together to express themselves.”

Halvorson added, “I was just reading about the attributes of music and they said, after 911, people turned to the arts to express themselves because the arts expresses that which is inexpressible. They were filled with grief and turned to the arts and they wrote music, poetry and drawings and used the arts to express themselves. That’s why the arts are so wonderful.”

Halvorson said he and his wife are preparing to move to Tioga, where he has an assignment lined up teaching music with Tioga Public Schools. His wife has secured a job in Tioga as well. They have a baby on the way, due in December.

Halvorson plans to write songs for his Tioga music students. “I already have ideas for Tioga,” he said with a laugh. “I have ideas for music already and it’s going to be really cool to direct a larger group like that. I have all the instrumentation. They have a wonderful music program there.”

He said when his baby comes along, “I’m thinking I’ll teach music to my child because instrumental music helps intelligence so much. So, I’m hoping I’ll have them practice 20 to 30 minutes every day, just because it helps with intelligence. I do believe I’ll do that.”

Long-term plans for the Halvorsons include retiring to the Philippines, where his wife was born.

“In the past two years, so many dreams have come true,” Halvorson added with a smile. “I’ve been published, I’ve gotten married and we’re going to have a child in December. So, I’m so extremely happy.”

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